Back in the saddle again

Martha McNiel visits with rescued horses Ruth, left, and Naomi at DreamPower Horsemanship. The pair were found July 20 malnourished and wandering around Murphy Avenue in east Morgan Hill.

Found starving and stranded near the highway two weeks ago, a pair of horses described as “very friendly” and “naturally curious” are on their way to becoming healthy equines instead of living skeletons.

“Not all rescues have happy endings,” said Martha McNiel, executive director of the nonprofit DreamPower Horsemanship on New Avenue near the San Martin/Gilroy border, where the rescued horses are staying temporarily. “But I think these two could. It just makes me cry.”

Affectionately named “Naomi” and “Ruth” after the Biblical heroines who were homeless for a time, the bay-colored, 15-year-old quarter/thoroughbred mare and 10-year-old quarter horse/pony cross are healing from months – perhaps years – of malnourishment and neglect. It is possible the two horses could be mother and daughter, McNiel said.

Naomi and Ruth were spotted at 10:30 a.m. July 20 wandering around the middle of Murphy Avenue in east Morgan Hill by concerned resident Lorynn Monroe-Rainieri, who moved the animals to her backyard until the police arrived. Officers then notified McNiel, who is the lead contact in Gilroy and Morgan Hill for the Santa Clara County Large Animal Evacuation Team.

With doe-like eyes and a white star hidden beneath a dark forelock, Naomi is the older equine who arrived in worse shape at approximately 300 pounds underweight. As of Wednesday, her spine and hipbones still protruded sharply from beneath her skin, which is flecked with dozens of scars of unknown origin.

Despite her fragile condition, however, Naomi’s elegant facial structure and statuesque body – compliments of her partial thoroughbred bloodlines – impart a regal, graceful physique that become more evident by the day, especially when she perks up and prances around before feeding time.

While the mare and pony’s gaunt appearance can be unsettling at first glance, McNiel has seen firsthand what a little love, care and training can do in just a short amount of time.

“People look at them and go, ‘Oh! They look horrible!” she chuckled. “But I can see the bloom three months down the road. It’s like seeing a rose bush in winter… I can see the roses inside these guys.”

McNiel’s eyes teared up as she underlined the uncanny similarity of Naomi’s story to that of Black Beauty – the beloved fictional horse hero who encounters both kindness and cruelty while being shuffled from one owner to the next.

An avid horsewoman, McNiel easily picked up on Naomi’s “respectful” ground manners and responsiveness to people; subtle indicators of a genteel upbringing that cause McNiel to speculate the mare’s life wasn’t always a harsh one.

“I have no idea what happened, because the condition she came in was unforgivable,” said McNiel, her eyes growing watery. “But it really is like ‘Black Beauty.’ I really think (Naomi) has somebody in her past who loved her and cared for her.”

With Friday marking the end of a required 14-day mandatory hold, the horses will soon be transported to Perfect Fit Equine Rescue in Morgan Hill, where Naomi and Ruth will continue to receive rehabilitative care and training prior to being adopted out to a suitable home.

“I think these guys have the potential to be really nice horses,” said McNiel, stroking Ruth, the younger and flightier of the two horses who nosed for carrots. “If I was a millionaire and had my own place and unlimited time, I would take them in a heartbeat and it would be really fun to watch them turn into something nice.”

Since arriving at DreamPower two weeks ago, Ruth and Naomi were 150 and 300 pounds underweight, respectively. Their feeding regimen began at 3 pounds of food, four times a day, then progressed to 1 pound of food, four times a day.

McNiel relates the hypersensitive re-nourishing process for Ruth and Naomi to the dangers associated with the refeeding syndrome in humans, which noticeably appeared in the 1950s following observations of malnourished prisoners of war.

“If you feed (the horses) all they want, they will look fine for two weeks and then drop dead from liver failure,” cautioned McNiel. “So our goal is to avoid that.”

A monitored diet and diligent care has seen Ruth – who measures in at 13.2 hands – put on 25 pounds since arriving at DreamPower. Naomi has gained 50 pounds and is 15.2 hands.

McNiel estimates the horses will be looking dapper in three month’s time, flaunting glossy coats and healthy body weights.

As a horse that doesn’t mind having her feet cleaned, being brushed or being loaded into a trailer, Naomi could eventually be a nice riding horse, McNiel said.

Ruth, on the other hand, who arrived frightened and “very wary,” is full of spunk and appears to be un-broke.

Still, “I could see her turning into a nice kid’s horse,” McNiel assured. “She’s not a first horse for anybody, but she’s the right size for an advanced or confident teenager. She could be a great little pony.”

The two horses have left an impression on more than just their caretaker.

News of the incident rippled through the community and beyond, eliciting a chorus of disapproving and concerned readers who commented on this newspaper’s website and on DreamPower’s Facebook page.

Many people have stopped by in the last couple of weeks to pay Ruth and Naomi a visit, while local feed provider G&K Farms of Gilroy donated 10 bales of alfalfa after learning of the incident.

Ruth and Naomi’s story is no outlier, for that matter. Their circumstance epitomizes a frightening epidemic sparked by the recession and, more recently, the exponentially skyrocketing prices for hay and alfalfa. Feed prices have spiked from $8 a bale 10 years ago to somewhere between $17 and $20 today.

The supply blight has caused animal control officers to notice the impact in Santa Clara County, where the average annual tally of stray horses jumped from four to 25 in the last year according to Albert Escobar, Animal Control Program Supervisor for the Santa Clara County. Escobar said the problem is even worse in Los Angeles, where animal control officers are discovering horse carcasses around Los Angeles County.

“The bottom line is that people are finding the cheap way out and just dumping them loose,” said Escobar in early March. “It’s sad.”

The issue inevitably segues to the difficult topic of humane euthanasia, versus “just tying your horse to a tree and leaving,” said McNiel. “They’re finding horse carcasses around parks and places and in Southern California…that is absolutely unforgivable.”

McNiel hopes Ruth and Naomi’s story can impart the most important takeaway – that there are options out there: Lots of them.

From rescue organizations, to hay banks, to farms that accept owner-surrendered horses, “there are resources out there for horse owners that are struggling,” said McNiel. “Just because the person who owned them can’t take care of them anymore, there may be somebody who can. And I think they should at least be given a chance.”



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